For the past three Trade Deadlines, trade rumors have circulated around Whit Merrifield. And once again, despite some piquing interest from other clubs, Dayton Moore and the Royals opted to keep Whit around for at least the remainder of 2021.
The decision is a polarizing one among Royals fans. One one end, other than Salvy, Whit is the face of the Royals franchise. He’s a two-time All-Star, and he has tremendous value as a player who can not only steal bases (he leads the American League in Stolen Bases with 27, and he’s only been caught once), but play multiple positions, and not take days off (he hasn’t sat out a game since 2018). It makes sense why so many teams around the league have been interested in his services for the past three years, as he can fit in nearly anywhere and have an immediate impact.
On the other end, Whit is 32-years-old, and doesn’t necessarily “fit” on a rebuilding team, especially with prospect Bobby Witt, Jr. looming in Triple-A, Nicky Lopez finally living up to his potential on both ends of the diamond, and Adalberto Mondesi (hopefully) returning from injury soon:
Yes, Whit can play multiple positions (though his best position defensively seems to be second base, though it’s not as good as Lopez’s defense). Yes, Whit is on a reasonable, team-friendly deal that could possibly end after next season (club option in 2023), which is essential for a small-market franchise like the Royals.
That being said, if the Royals want to build a long-time winner for 2022 and beyond, finding prospects who could perhaps fit in the long-term may be a better solution than relying heavily on Whit, who is showing signs of decline already, and could regress even further in 2022 and 2023.
And for a team with long-term aspirations, regressing players, especially everyday ones like Whit, aren’t exactly assets helpful to a club, let alone the Kansas City Royals.
However, is Whit really hitting a regression in 2021? Or is he simply going through a bad streak, simply feeling the pressure of the trade season, unsure of his future in Kansas City and in baseball in general?
Let’s take a look at Whit’s profiles this year, especially over the past month, and what the Royals may need from Whit over the next couple of months.
Because Whit’s performance in August and September (and a few days in October) may be the key to whether or not the Royals build the momentum necessary to be a more competitive club in the AL Central in 2022.
At the surface level, Whit isn’t having a “bad” season by any means. Over 102 games and 446 plate appearances, he is posting a 94 wRC+ with a fWAR of 2.2, according to Fangraphs. Considering the Royals’ inconsistency throughout the lineup this season, Whit has been at least moderately consistent in his production, especially in comparison to other Royals hitters like Hunter Dozier, Andrew Benintendi, and the recently-departed Jorge Soler.
However, when diving deeper into Whit’s metrics, especially his monthly splits, some interesting trends develop, especially when looking at his advanced metrics by month.
As one can see, going into Saturday’s game, Whit has seen his strikeout rate and BB/K ratio increase each month. After showing pretty good plate discipline in April and May, Whit saw his strikeout rate increase to 15.8 percent and 20 percent in June and July, respectively. Furthermore, his BB/K ratio decreased from 0.79 (a solid number) to 0.26 in June and 0.25 in July. Those are not ideal ratios for a leadoff hitter, which has been Whit’s primary spot in the batting order the past few seasons.
As a result of the increase in strikeouts and decline in walk rate and BB/K ratio, Whit has really seen his overall numbers dip dramatically in the month of July. Whit’s over-aggressive batting approach didn’t hurt him much in June, as he posted a 149 wRC+ that month, which was not only a season-best, month-wise, but it also fueled his All Star reserve candidacy. However, his BABIP, which was .391 in June, an overly high number probably driven by luck. Case in point, his BABIP fell back to more April and May numbers (.267 and .253) during the month of July (.280). As a result of experiencing less luck on batted balls, in addition to generating more swings and misses, Whit has produced a 46 wRC+ in the month of July going into Saturday’s game, which has been his worst month thus far in 2021.
The 20 percent strikeout rate in July is particularly concerning, especially since his career strikeout rate is 15.9 percent, according to Fangraphs. Whit has never been a high-walk kind of hitter, as his career walk rate is only 6.2 percent. And that’s not ncessarily a bad thing, especially since Whit has always been good at generating contact (85.1 percent contact rate this year; 83.3 percent career contact rate). However, is the 20 percent strikeout rate we have seen in the month of July a blip on the radar, or a sign of pitchers taking advantage of his over-eager approach?
When looking at his Statcast metrics, a particular area where Whit has struggled this year, in comparison to seasons past, is his performance against breaking pitches.
Let’s take a look at his performance against breaking pitches since 2017, according to Baseball Savant:
What has been interesting about Whit and his history against breaking balls is that Whit has traditionally outperformed his expected metrics on the pitch going into this season.
On BA-xBA; Slg-xSLG; and wOBA-xwOBA ends, from 2017 to 2020, Whit’s actual metrics in those three categories (BA, SLG, wOBA) always outpaced his expected metrics (xBA, xSLG, and xWOBA). That typically is a sign that Whit has been on the luckier end when it comes to contact on batted balls, as he has been able to find holes in the defense on balls he puts in play, even though he doesn’t generate great average exit velocity.
That being said, this year, his batting average and wOBA actually lag behind his xBA and xwOBA, respectively, a sign that he’s not getting as lucky as in years past. He’s actually generating better average exit velocity on breaking balls when he makes contact on them, as his 84.5 MPH exit velocity this season is the highest mark of the 2017-2021 sample. But his average launch angle on batted balls on the pitch is only 12 degrees, which is tied for the lowest mark in that category with last year, which was also 12 degrees.
Here is an example of Whit pulling a Triston McKenzie slider instead of going with the pitch, which would be hitting the ball to the opposite field. As a result, he hits a groundball at 86.7 MPH which is fielded easily for a groundout (though Whit’s hustles makes it an interesting play at first). Unfortunately, this has been a more common sight for Whit and Royals fans in 2021.
Furthermore, he has been significantly whiffing on the pitch more than ever, which doesn’t exactly combo well with the lack of launch on batted breaking balls. His 29.3 percent whiff rate is his highest rate on the pitch over that 2017-2021 sample, and 6.3 percent higher than a year ago. Whiffing nearly 30 percent on a certain type of pitch is not a good thing, especially for a leadoff hitter and player like Whit who is so crucial to the Royals’ offense.
Here is an example of Detroit’s Casey Mize taking advantage of Whit’s over-aggressive approach, as he is able to punch out Whit on a slider that is way out of the strike zone:
Based on both GIFs above, it is obvious that Whit is not timing or feeling comfortable against the breaking ball this year, which has been deflating his line overall. The big problem seems to be he is trying to pull those pitches, which does one of two things: either he loops around the pitch, which simply produces an easy groundout, or he swings over the pitch, which results in whiffs and/or strikeouts.
Here is an example of Whit going with a breaking ball in the beginning of the year against Tampa Bay’s Rich Hill. As a result, Whit gets a base hit that finds a hole, even if it is only hit 72.2 MPH, a relatively “soft-hit” ball:
Unfortunately, that is not happening enough for Whit in 2021. I am not sure what the challenge has been for Whit in regard to the breaking ball. It could be a swing adjustment issue or a pitch recognition one. Either way, Whit’s performance against breaking pitches will be an important trend for Royals fans to pay attention to over these next couple of months.
Of course, his performance against the breaking ball is not the sole thing that Whit needs to focus on at the plate. He has also seen a regression in his performance against the fastball, as his wOBA is down to .341 from .388 a year ago. Granted, Whit is still showing prowess against offspeed pitches, as his .386 wOBA against offspeed stuff is 133 points higher than a year ago. That is promising in Whit’s situation, and shows that he can still be productive against one kind of pitch.
However, let’s take a look at the pitch usage breakdown Whit has seen at the plate in 2021:
As one can see, pitchers are throwing Whit less offspeed stuff than a year ago, and more breaking balls and fastballs as a result. Therefore, in order for Whit to see any kind of overall offensive improvement over these next two months, he will need to improve against the fastball and breaking ball, with the latter a major point of focus, especially considering his low production against the pitch in 2021.
Now will Whit improving against the breaking ball mean that the Royals will be playoff contenders in 2021 and 2022? Most likely not, of course. The Royals still need to figure out their starting pitching and bullpen, which ranks 26th and 23rd in ERA, respectively, according to Fangraphs.
That being said, an offensive boost from Whit down the stretch in August and September can go a long way in proving that the 32-year-old utility player can still indeed be the productive franchise player that Moore and Mike Matheny believe that he is and can be in 2022 and maybe in 2023. The Royals need him to be a productive force at the top of the lineup if they have any illusions of giving the Chicago White Sox a run in the Central Division next season.
But we will need to see some gains against breaking pitches first…
And if Royals fans see that over the next month…
Then well…maybe Whit can prove that he was worth keeping at the Trade Deadline after all, both to the Royals organization and fanbase.
Photo Credit: Joe Robbins/Getty Images